You may not know Lincoln Davis from Pall Mall, Tenn., but you should, if you care about who’ll win the Democratic presidential nomination.
You may not know Fagafaga Langkilde of American Samoa, or Heather Mizeur of Takoma Park, Md., either.
But they, too, are people worth knowing.
All three and nearly 800 other Democrats are considered “superdelegates.”
They are the 796 Democratic elected officials and party activists who, under party rules, have a vote at the August convention that will nominate either Sen. Hillary Clinton or Sen. Barack Obama for president.
The nominee will be the person who gets the support of at least 2,025 delegates ---superdelegates accounting for about 40 percent of that necessary total.
Forty-five percent still up for grabs
According to the NBC News Political unit, as of Wednesday, 439 superdelegates have publicly committed to voting either for Clinton or Obama.
That leaves about 45 percent of them still up for grabs --- that is if they haven't made private commitments to either candidate.
But even the ones who have made statements in support of either Clinton or Obama are free to change their minds at any time, right up until the moment that the convention begins balloting in August.
Judged by the dozens of e-mails we’ve received in recent days, many of our msnbc.com readers are clamoring for an explanation.
“I keep hearing about ‘superdelegates.’ What are they and why are they ‘super’?” asked one reader from Missouri.
“How can a person become a superdelegate? My aunt is wise and is very politically active,” wrote another reader, offering his own nominee.
Who gets to be a superdelegate?
Well, dear reader, maybe your aunt should be a superdelegate, but she is not, unless she happens to be one of the following:
- A Democratic governor, a senator, or a member of the House of Representatives
- A member of the Democratic National Committee, elected by party activists in her state
- A distinguished party leader, such as former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, or former House speakers Jim Wright and Tom Foley
- An at-large DNC member such as Richard Michalski, appointed by party chairman Howard Dean and ratified by the DNC membership
But, who’s Richard Michalski?
Michalski is the vice president of the 720,000-member International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, whose political action committee has given heavily to Democratic candidates. The Machinists union has endorsed Clinton.
“It’s entirely possible that the convention will be a brokered convention, and in that case, I think that it would probably be very helpful to have people whose own elections and whose own jobs depend on our ability to elect a strong presidential candidate,” said superdelegate and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who has endorsed Clinton.
O’Malley said this on Sunday, two days before 60 percent of Maryland’s Democratic voters cast their ballots for Obama.
The label “superdelegate” is inaccurate since each of them has only one vote at the convention, just as those delegates chosen by primaries or caucuses.
When Democrats vote in a primary, they vote for a slate of pledged delegates, who are committed to one particular candidate. The DNC actually calls superdelegates “unpledged delegates” because they’re not pledged to vote for a particular contender.
And this year, for the first time ever, their votes may make all the difference.
There's emphasis on the word “may” because the remaining primaries in Wisconsin, Ohio, Rhode Island, Texas, and 12 other states may result in either Clinton or Obama having enough pledged delegates to clinch the nomination.
But, what if, by June 8, the morning after the last contest, neither Clinton nor Obama has amassed enough delegates to lock up the nomination?
Then the superdelegates will be the deciding voters at the convention. This prospect makes some superdelegates nervous, but others are taking it in stride.
“None of us want to be king- or queen-maker in that scenario,” said Heather Mizeur, that superdelegate from Takoma Park, Md. She's an elected DNC member from Maryland, and also a member of the Maryland state legislature.
Mizeur is neutral. “It’s been helpful because I have people calling me up all the time knowing that I’m not for one or the other, but that I know people on both sides.”
Potentially alienating one's allies
She acknowledged that if she were to support Obama or Clinton, there could be some unhappy Democrats in her district, the ones who support the candidate that she didn’t endorse.
Every superdelegate faces this same quandary: alienating the Democrats who elect them and with whom they must work. “People are very much divided,” said Mizeur.
“The word ‘superdelegate,’ to me is not a proper way to identify it. We are delegates, just as any delegate is chosen,” said Rep. Lincoln Davis, the Democrat who has represented Tennessee’s mostly rural Fourth Congressional district since 2003.
“I was chosen by a population of 630,000 people that live in the congressional district. I got 68 percent of the vote…. I think it’s appropriate that individuals who serve large parts of the state, who are Democrats, be part of the process. That’s just been a customary part of American politics, certainly within the Democratic Party.”
Why superdelegates deserve a role
“The reason that I support delegates of this nature is that we’ve won in a Democratic primary, where Democrats chose us to be their nominee, and then gone on to win in November in the general election. We’ve already gone before the voters — more voters in most cases than most delegates get,” he said.
Davis said he'll head to the convention uncommitted, which means we’ll only find out how he votes when the roll of the states is called.
Clinton won his congressional district and that fact “would have to be a part of the decision-making process that I will go through."
"Sen. Clinton won by a sizable margin in my district, better than 70 percent.”
He added, “I usually try to be sure I represent the wishes of the people in my congressional distinct.”
He also noted that, “In my district, the conservative Democrat voters that cast their vote in 2002 to nominate me — a pro-life, pro-family, pro-prayer, pro-gun Democrat — were those same voters who cast their vote for Hillary Clinton by a better than three-to-one margin.”
But he added that he doesn’t think the superdelegates will cast the deciding votes in the nominating process.
“I believe that by mid-March, a decision will be made by the Democratic primary voters on who the nominee will be, and perhaps the next president,” Davis said.
How superdelegates could be 'helpful'
If neither Clinton nor Obama has won a majority of the delegates by June 4, Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland says he hopes his fellow superdelegates "will be helpful in bringing us to a conclusion before the convention — not using backroom politics, but using a way of looking at who is likely to be the nominee and who has the greatest support.”
Cardin is uncommitted so far.
But columnist and Democratic activist David Sirota warned this week of “a potential backroom effort to use undemocratic superdelegates to anoint a Democratic presidential nominee — with many superdelegates potentially using their power in defiance of how their states and communities voted.”
He demanded that superdelegates “really respect democracy” and “simply vote the way their states' voters voted.”
If Sirota's rule were imposed, then in California, for instance, all the House members who have backed Obama, such as Rep. George Miller, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, and others, would have to vote for the person they oppose, Clinton.
Likewise, Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, whose state voted for Clinton. Kennedy, who has campaigned tirelessly across the nation for Obama, was skeptical about the idea of superdelegates simply voting the way their states' voters did.
“Does that mean proportionately in each state? So you’d have some superdelegates in my state that was 54 percent, 43 percent, so do you divide them up or what?”
Kennedy added, “My sense is this ought to be decided by the elected delegates,” that is, by those elected in primaries and caucuses.
And if that happens, then the superdelegates will fade back into the obscurity they had until recently. And many of them will breathe a sigh of relief.